This Is What The Memory of American Democracy Looks Like
To save the world, we must be rid of the tyranny of our romantic recollections of American democracy.
Within a recent New York times piece of the white liberal thought strain that white US policy is actually an aberration to democracy and reflective of other peoples or styles of governance, namely the dreaded communists, it plucked the latest rise of anti-CRT legislation from the American Pie it was baked in and put it within the context of Eastern European instead, calling it the acts of a totalitarian government. Throughout the piece, parallels to post-Soviet Eastern European memory laws with different states’ attempts at suppressing the way the true history of the United States is told were made.
But if this repressive legislative movement born from a classic right wing moral panic happened in the United States and keeps on happening in the United States over time, repeatedly, over and over, with millions in the population joyously, uncritically agreeing with their own violent, white version of the events, is it really an aberration from democracy? Or is it just the true bent and result of American governance and institutional policy?
Any protest with a significant radical contingent will eventually echo with the resounding call and response of “Tell me what democracy looks like!” “This is what democracy looks like!”
I had a friend who would practically spit in disdain whenever he heard that slogan chanted at protests. He on principle hated the idea that acts of autonomous people-centered take over of the state and private elite commons in protest of oppression, worker exploitation, gentrification, policing, hegemony, colonialism, patriarchy, corporate greed, whatever the issue at hand, was a display of democracy. He believed it was in fact a protest of democracy, being that it was under democracy, directly because of it, that these ills we were protesting manifested.
Often being or becoming the ring leader of actions and protests I attended I would sometimes chant along, but mostly I stayed quiet, as I ultimately agreed with my friend. I had no desire to reclaim democracy or to pretend my organizing and my participation in protest was democratic. It was meant to challenge the order of democracy, something I’d almost exclusively known to be violent.
But my friend and I found that we were generally in the minority. This idea that protest and the challenging of the political status quo is actually a faithful adherence to its democratic intent and structure is the reactionary framing abundant in these political moments and bursts of uprisings.
“This isn’t cancel culture, it is freedom of speech!”
“Protest isn’t Anti-American, it is as American as Apple Pie!”
Our social media and news feeds get filled with these pithy slogans and headlines that can be summed up simply as “Gotcha, Conservatives!” one-liners. To many the most impressive way to counter right wing criticism that says we are anti-American is to say that we are in fact the true embodiment of Americanness, that not only is Being The Most American American a universal superior ideological goal and moral standing ground but one we on the left inhabit best, actually.
A blatant admittance from conservatives that challenging oppression or demanding truth about colonial harms means you are anti-American does not lead many to then interrogate if this Americanness is something that requires unquestioned continuance and preserving. It instead leads them to go “No actually YOU’RE the real anti-Americans!” in a weak back and forth that neither liberals nor the left has ideologically ever won.
In the center and liberal circles, it is said the democracy of the United States models the intent and future of a progressive and inclusive democracy because it in part borrows from an Indigenous structure of governance from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
More to the political right, in line with early settler doctrines and frameworks like Terra Nullius, it is argued that democracy is the superior system of governance because it is a Western European system, devoid of the antiquated, less sophisticated, or tribal shortcomings of other world systems of governance.
However, there is common agreement that US democracy is the thing, the goal and superior to other systems of governance. The disagreement and argument of the nation remains solely in what is a proper display of said democracy, whether in allegiance to its roots or to its progress forward, and what is an aberration to it, an insult to its past or to who we are as a nation today.
But the true proof of their efficacy has to be in what democracies have produced and historically been to various peoples, not what some perhaps believed they were philosophically fashioned to do or model.
The Roman Republic, from which the United States greatly takes its political form and influence from, had a hierarchical structure including a class strata which dictated everything from voting rights to marriage between classes. It offered little to no representational voice given to the lower classes. Ancient Greece as well was divided into a hierarchy of four separate classes. Despite being a direct democracy, only literate men who owned land could vote. Whatever of the rest was potentially gleaned from the Haudenosaunee if at all was done through a corrupt white settler lens.
The rule of “for the people, by the people” was not actually foundational to the hierarchical, imperial societies modern Western democracy bases itself off. And this top down structure has followed democracy wherever it has gone, so much so that to many, slavery and hierarchy of these systems seem inevitable to all human systems of self-governance and coexistence. And so, the rule of a white, slave and land-owning Christian male majority under the romantic guise of equitable mass representation was maintained throughout the formation of this country. At times when there was a minority that it served the nation to recognize, like white slave owners, legislation was put into place to protect their rights, though we know the protection of people from the “tyranny of the majority” is not consistently applied.
No nation or structure of governance is perfect. There will always be flaws and prejudices of a nation will inevitably seep into them if not checked for. But when a nation was built on a foundation of slavery, genocide, land grabbing, colonization, imperialism, Western hegemony and hierarchy and continues in that very tradition, it is not a matter of a system being merely flawed in a human way or at times inconsistent, but a matter of the system being structured to render these very specific results intentionally.
Given that, it makes no sense to try to lay blame for the hard fought fruits of Democracy’s deliberate labors on vague, othered system of “totalitarianism,” invoking Nazis, Soviets and Eastern European “Memory Laws” outside of their proper context and relationship to blame and scapegoat for what white liberals deem unseemly, uncharacteristic or atypical aspects of their settler world. This idea that the consistent violent, dogmatic and exclusive results of very common and intentional occurrences, practices and structures of Western Democracy is actually indicative of a separate system is deeply ignorant, naïve and unhelpful at its most innocent, but an act of deep-seated white national delusion and historical revisionism largely.
This democracy is built on the history of its white Christian victors, its disease carrying settler pilgrims and pioneers, its boarding and residential school creators, its white slave owners, slave catchers and lynch mobs. This democracy consistently deals with deadly ultra right wing political movements and waves every decade, fed and bred by the normal ultra conservatism of the country in lull years. This democracy kills Black people with impunity. In this democracy, anti-abortion movements born as a reaction to the growing population and political threat of newly freed African Americans and race-mixing dictates the reproductive rights of all. In this democracy temperatures rise and infrastructures neglected by bloated, protected private entities fall apart as impending climate catastrophe looms, started by those very same private corporate entities, most of whom got and sustained their riches over centuries from colonial spoils. That is democracy. That is what it looks like.
So why is the white liberal memory of it so different from its reality?
To cry out and say “These displays are not representative of our democracy” doesn’t actually combat right wing moral panics over “Cancel culture” or “CRT in K-12 schools”. It whitewashes legacies of revisionism and erases the manner of the allotment of power, authority, freedom and self-rule in the United States. It works to assure an equally brainwashed liberal readership that their fabricated ideas of what America truly is and stands for are correct. Nothing less, nothing more.
It is the setting up of a hypocritical ideological trap that falsely posits democracy has always had a set of egalitarian, inclusive, progressive or justice-minded morals and standards that in reality it never once in its life or existence has had. The far right Christian Conservatives who believe US democracy is kept by the firm and unscrupulous upholding of their authority and values, by the exclusion of undesirable people and values, by the controlling of narrative, are correct.
This is in fact what democracy has looked like.
We cannot then historically root the chronic results of this democracy, of United States revisionism in the form of anti-CRT legislation, in Eastern European Memory Laws. Parallels may exist, but the projects and legacies of the United States to dictate truth as written by the powerful predate those memory laws and very likely inform them instead of the other way around. And just because there are parallels doesn’t mean you can outsource the blame for an American tradition to communism any time it challenges your idea of what you think democracy should be despite it showing you what it is daily.
The real historical ancestor of anti-CRT protests and legislation lies in history of anti-bussing organizing of the 70s, which included rallies and organizing against new text books that included “information related to the history, culture, and perspectives of minorities.”
The Florida Board of Education ruling banning Critical Race Theory in schools claimed “Instruction on the required topics must be factual and objective and may not suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, and may not define American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” The New York Times article linking this legislation to Memory Laws in Eastern Europe named this does a disservice as you cannot truly talk about The Holocaust without talking about race and power, without talking about how the Nazis were informed on their genocidal policy by the United States’.
While this assertion is true, this style of teaching the Holocaust is not new. As a self-taught Holocaust scholar of sorts as a child, the differences between the narratives of the Jewish victims and survivors of the Holocaust vs what I was taught in schools across Western Michigan was glaring. The American exceptionalization of the Holocaust outside of its context of centuries of antisemitism in Europe and the United States, genocidal German colonial policy in its African colonies and the influence United States’ own policies and genocidal practices against Black and Indigenous people had on the Holocaust has been the status quo for decades in the United States. How it manifests in specific anti-CRT law in Florida at this moment, and how it is specifically weaponized against the telling of Black and Indigenous history, only speaks to the latest manifestation of this exceptionalism, not the beginning of a new trend.
Whatever genuine criticisms exists of communism not enshrined in propaganda that one has, it has absolutely nothing to do with the ills and inherent violences of democracy here. I have no deep troubling need to fancast its Founding Fathers to be something they never were. I believe truly and wholeheartedly that if they were here today they’d agree with incoming legislation to police and ban anti-racist knowledge and speech that challenges the fabric of the conservative white Christian patriarchal society they wished to establish. Their concepts of freedom always had its confines, their dreams for progress, its limits, political participation, its exclusions, imagination for the future, their abrupt wake up calls.
This perverse need to look elsewhere to make comparisons, to act as if when righty behaved or when desirable political and governmental traits and attributes globally are modeled, even retroactively in the past, one can attribute all the good to white Christian democracy, and when democracy acts poorly, no it didn’t, it was actually communism, is in and of itself revisionist and ahistorical. It is a shining example of American Exceptionalism.
At the end of the day one must understand the discord exists because there is an innate dissonance between goodness and the United States from inception to today. In the face of so much historical and modern tragedy and oppression, including the beginning of the country’s own reckoning with its genocidal boarding school system, it seems a poor and mocking thing to endeavor to ideologically whitewash democracy instead of fessing up its harm. You have to choose whether you want democracy or whether you want truth and liberation. But the very tragic and desperate attempt at the rehabilitation of “democracy” should be foregone as something of use to reckoning with the reality of its history.